A.N. Whitehead and Music

For those with some time and patience, this is a piece on a metaphysics of music based upon the process philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead.  Music as Symbol for the Creative Advance

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Kim Cascone – Subtle Listening

by Paul McNees

In one of my earlier posts – Preconception and Deep Listening – I attempted to address the idea of “conditioned” listening habits and their effect upon one’s ability to appreciate more, shall we say “adventurous” types of music.  My point in that article was this: though our ability to anticipate future events based upon past experience is an important element of  our species’ survival, it’s side effect is an inability to appreciate the aesthetic merit of art objects (in this context – music) that stray too far from the familiar.

I have come to realize, through my teaching, that these obstacles can be overcome through giving people a sense of context (be it social, artistic, or, in my case, deep time), and guiding them in the process of observing their listening.  What do I mean by this? How might one observe their own senses?

My theories around this concept arose while studying the process metaphysics of Alfred North Whitehead with my mentor, Dr. Eric Weiss (http://ericweiss.com/).  For Whitehead, we begin with an analysis of our visual field.  We notice that what our eyes actually see is just a field of different patches of color.  It is our consciousness that gives that field meaning.  The question arises – how does consciousness begin to create objects?      How does that scope of subtle shades of green, grey, and brown become a landscape imbibed with feeling, poetry, and sublimity?

The same process of perception can be applied to sound.  How is it that continuity and meaning can be derived from a temporal sequence of aural phenomena?  When explored deeply it becomes impossible to avoid questioning our very notions of the concept of music.

With this in mind I was thrilled to discover the work of Kim Cascone – an artist who has been at the cutting edge of music/sound art since the early eighties (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kim_Cascone).  Mr. Cascone has developed an exciting workshop he calls “Subtle Listening – Ear Training for Sound Artists”.  Here is the description he sent to me this morning:

“Subtle Listening is a mode of listening where one’s imagination is open to the sound world around them, helping their inner ear and outer world intersect. The ‘Subtle Listening’ workshop is a two-day workshop for musicians, media artists, filmmakers, composers, producers, sound designers, etc. who want to sharpen their listening skills. The workshop uses a wide range of techniques culled from Jungian psychology, Hermetic philosophy, paradox and Buddhist mediation, as well as thirty years of my own experience as a sound artist and electro-acoustic music composer. Through guided meditation, and listening exercises, participants will learn techniques they can use any time to help heighten their sensitivity to the sounds around them.”

For anyone even remotely interested in exploring new music – especially genres like Noise, Glitch, (I know the artists balk, but…) Hauntological, and electro-acoustic field recordings (Richard Skelton comes to mind) – this kind of work is invaluable!  Listening to music in this way has the potential to open up the spiritual dimensions of sound.  Being moved by music emotionally is wonderful, but easy. The intellectual realms of music are deep and captivating.  The deeper realms, the more subtle realms, may be more challenging to access but, in the end, infinitely more rewarding.

Stay tuned and I will be sure to post more information as the details of the workshop come together.  Perhaps I will see you there!

Here’s more links to Kim’s work:


http://www.ccapitalia.net/reso/articulos/cascone/aesthetics_failure.htmKim Cascone –

Polygon Witch

And here’s a teaser for Kim’s new cd on Monotype:


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Richard Skelton – “Marking Time”

Tumult and peace, the darkness and the light/Were all like workings of one mind, the features/ Of the same face, blossoms upon one tree/Characters of the great Apocalypse/ The types and symbols of Eternity/ Of first and last, and midst, and without end.  ~William Wordsworth

It seems appropriate that it would be within the pre-dawn hours of 9/11 – anniversary of the now decade old tragedy – that I would begin to understand my impressions of Richard Skelton’s art.  Though composed of deceptively simple elements, Skelton’s work runs deeply in the Romantic tradition of the 18th century – a stream that goes back to Heraclitus and Plato; resurfaces in the pre-Renaissance mystics; and finds its poetic voice in Wordsworth, Keats, and Carlyle.  A tradition in desperate need of revival if we are to heal our destructive relationship to our planet.  By grappling with what has been termed by M.H. Abrams as a “theodicy of the landscape”, the poets and philosophers in this tradition bravely confront the problem of reconciling flux with the palpable sense of the eternal.

Over the past five years, I watched my father slowly fade into advancing dementia; in May of this year I watched as he passed into death; each day since I have watched my memory and feeling bring him back, only to realize once again that he is gone.  I wrote to Mr. Skelton over the summer and expressed to him my gratitude for the comfort his music bestowed and his response was as gentle and understanding as his music.  ”Marking Time” is dedicated to his wife, Louise, who passed in 2004.

Skelton’s music is about the landscape, but it is also about memory – about the past as it exists in the present.  As I listened this morning, I began to wonder when I first realized that winter was happening “again”.  When did I internalize the cycles and passage of time?  And when did I succumb to the prison of “clock-time”?  Cellos slowly swell, the bow scraping lush harmonics from the strings, a guitar plays its impressions of the swaying of long grass, and a piano vaguely traces a series of memories and imaginations that rise and fall like the ripples on a clear lake.  All metronomics have vanished, all that remains is the emerging and passing away of experience.  There is no “progress”, only change, but change that can only exist within the context of the eternal.  The passing of a cloud can only be seen in relation to an unchanging sky.  Perhaps it is also true that a life lived can only be recognized by an unchanging soul.  Time is “marked” in Skelton’s music by phases, not by the ticking of a clock.

 In this way, when I listened this morning, as the night slowly passed into day, I somehow understood more deeply the emerging and passing of all things.  This note, right now, is beautiful.  In a moment it will be gone, replaced by something new – something of equal beauty.  In this way we touch upon the original meaning of the word sublime - the paradoxical union of delight and terror, of pleasure and awe.  This has been the comfort, I realized today, that I feel in Skelton’s music – a resolution of pain and pleasure.  It seems to be a musical expression of the mind of nature – an affirmation of Heraclitus’ famous dictum that “you cannot step twice into the same stream”.


Listen to a sample here:

Richard Skelton – Ford

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Gebser and Music

The Irruption of Time in Music

For those with the time, inclination, and/or interest. This is an involved piece I wrote on music and its relationship to the evolution of consciousness. Reading it may bring more clarity to the shorter pieces on my blog.

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Preconception and Deep Listening

As a species, our ability to preconceive has allowed us considerable success in our survival.  This skill depends upon a highly sophisticated use of pattern recognition and, subsequently, pattern prediction.  What probably started off as a somewhat mythical re-cognition – a feeling of again – evolved into a highly complex knowledge of, not only cyclical variants of large scale events (like seasons) but, minutia of complex behavioral systems. (Remember, the intent here is to talk about music.  A proper discussion of the crumbling of this ability – vis a vis Fukushima, climate change, and an infinite growth economy based on finite fossil fuels – will have to be relegated to someone else’s blog.)   So… though our species now has the ability to hurl a spacecraft into the tail of a comet careening through the cosmos at unimaginable speed, most of the population is completely dumbfounded by free jazz.  The reason for this?  The two principles are working at cross purposes.  It is the very ability to preconceive that disallows us the pleasure of enjoying much of the creativity in the field of modern music.

Think about it:  if your favorite Dave Matthews song were suddenly interrupted by an interlude consisting of Bagpipe, Banjo, Accordion, and a Tuvan throat singer, your preconceived notion  of  how that song was supposed to unfold would be severely disappointed.  The question is, however, how does this same process unfold in a song you’ve never heard?  Usually if the deviation is slight enough –  an unexpected bridge or chorus, a chord change that came out of the blue – it has the potential to delight us or at least engage our attention.  In 99.9% of those examples, however, the variation still fits somehow within the paradigm provided by our Western upbringing – that “unexpected” chord is still harmonically “correct”.   Now, granted, these are incredibly sweeping generalizations, but the spirit of the argument is this: we expect certain patterns from the music we listen to, and these expectations have the potential to prevent us from being fully engaged in an experience of Listening.  We end up disliking a whole genre of music simply due to the fact that we’ve never been provided any guidance in opening our skills of listening.  As David Stubbs says in his book “Fear of Music”, almost anyone can go to a museum and appreciate something as abstract as a Jackson Pollack painting, but a very small percentage of the population can sit down and enjoy (much less have heard of) a Stockhausen concert.

I am by no means recommending that anyone try and rid themselves of their preconceptions, not only do I think this impossible (unless aided by a kindly psychotropic substance) but, in the long run, unhelpful.  I see the “problem” as more of an opportunity – a portal into an awareness of the lenses through which we view music (and subsequently the world).  What I have found, personally, through continuously opening my ears to new music, is that my paradigmatic assumptions have not only broadened, but have actually shifted.  I no longer listen to music in the way that I did even five years ago.  The task could perhaps be paraphrased as this: instead of listening with one’s mind, we listen through the mind. We don’t try to go into some sort of magical trance state and bypass the rational mind, but we engage the rational mind in examining itself!  Our species has evolved into a state of consciousness that is self-reflective – we know that we think and can think about how we think.  Music has the potential to deepen our awareness of ourselves, into how we feel, how we think, and how we view the world.  It has the potential to reveal our paradigmatic assumptions and allow us to move past them.

By deeply engaging with our experience of music, there is the possibility of transcendence.  By reframing the statement “I don’t like that!” with a question or two: “How did that not meet my expectation of what music is supposed to be?” “How did I arrive at that expectation?” “Where do I draw the line as to what is music and what isn’t music?”: we may begin to extend the boundary of our aesthetic values and at the same time learn about ourselves and what informs our decisions about the world.  Even if the end result is that, dammit, those bagpipes just don’t belong in that Dave Matthews song, our knowledge of ourselves can only make the world a better place.

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Scott Tuma – “Dandelion”

There are particular dreams that are bizarrely universal: flying, trying to run with leaden feet, screaming with the voice caught in the throat…or playing beautiful music upon an instrument with which, in waking life, one is quite unfamiliar.  You know the dream: you are asked to sit at the piano and play; you are bracing yourself for humiliation, you lay your hands upon the keys and allow them to begin roaming around; your actions are frighteningly random but what issues forth is beautiful, mysterious, a direct connection with your soul. As your confidence builds and you realize that there is really nothing to this “musician” thing, you explore the whole keyboard; but somewhere inside of you, maybe in the part of your consciousness that could at any moment awaken, you know that what your hands are doing and the sounds being produced are completely disconnected.

An unruly percentage of the “popular” music we to which the masses are exposed reveals a type of perspective that has become so familiar that we sometimes mistake it for all of Reality.  In the realm of painting it is referred to as “vanishing point perspective”.  It is based upon the idea that, if parallel lines (problematic in modern geometry as it is) were somehow projected upon one’s optical field, they would eventually converge to a point. Perspective painting was a brilliant Renaissance discovery that  became the norm in visual art from its birth in the 15th century to demise in the 20th.

The same dissolution of “perspective” has taken place in modern music, simply not in what most of us are presented with – especially on the radio. (Understand, I am not judging popular music as “good” or “bad”- just dominant.)   Pop on the cd player your favorite Dave Matthews album. Close your eyes and try and see what you hear. There’s Dave, front and center; sure enough, the bass player is over there on the left; and the other guitar player is on the right with the keyboards; and, yes, the drummer is at the back of the “stage”.   Now they will lead us through a “song” with its beginning and its end, its middle bit, its verses and choruses.  We will feel complete at the end because there was some sort of return – either in theme or in tonal center (if we started in the key of C, we probably ended in the key of C).  Now, this is not to say that writing the perfect pop song is easy by any stretch of the imagination.  There is a craft involved in this type of music that, when successful, is impeccable.  What I am pointing to is formula and perspective.

Now who is to say that the perspective of the dream is any less real or relevant than the dominant Cartesian grid?   Who is really to say that reality does not play itself out in a series of interlocking spheres, or a diaphanous bubble of interconnectivity.  It is virtually impossible to picture Scott Tuma’s music taking place inside a sterile studio, much less in any particular time or place.  Instead, it is more like walking into the cloud of someone else’s dreamscape: a dusty front porch in an Alabama bayou; Great Aunt Ida’s house in rural Pennsylvania – she’s not there, but the music is coming from behind that door.  You see the musicians playing but the sound is incongruent with the motion – those hands could not possibly create that music, but you know they do.

“Dandelion” merges the realms of memory and dream.  It is “aperspectival”.  There is no real beginning; no end; no palpable sense of place; no linear sense of time.  Events simply float onto the aural landscape; they remain just long enough to be acknowledged and then they are gone.  What remains is not so much a story, or a melody, or even a poem or a song, but an impression – a ghostly impression of some past or future that exists only ephemerally.  Tuma’s music likens itself to a cool breeze that touches one’s skin, but in an environment where no breeze is possible.

We tend to think of the dominant paradigm, or our view of our place in the cosmos, as something real, something permanent.  It is difficult to imagine that it could have once been different or could, at some point in the future, change again.  But we need only examine the artifacts of our species to see that this is so – that we could move from this world:

To this one:

Listen to a song from “Dandelion” here:


Buy it here:


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Terje Isungset – “Winter Songs”

There are certain musics that seem to reach back into the distant reaches of human consciousness: didgeridoo music of Arnhem Land, the vocal harmonies of the Central African Pygmy, witchcraft music of Tanzania, Kirana ragas from North India and Pakistan come immediately to mind.  These are ancient forms carried through the generations on the carpet of the oral tradition.  Though feeble attempts have been made, these traditions defy intellectual analysis.  This makes sense when we realize that these musics are pre-intellectual; pre-rational is a better term.  Modern analysis (post-Renaissance) is based upon a process of dissection, abstraction, and quantification.  As soon as this method is applied to ancient music, as soon as it is codified, notated, and filtered through the Western scientific mind, the music itself crumbles.  Its continued existence relies upon the fact that all of our experience travels through the vestigial realms of past consciousness.  As much as we would all like to think of ourselves as rational creatures, we are equally mythical and magical; our moment to moment coming into being, upon close inspection, is just as mystifying as it must have been to the first cell, the first molecule, the first subatomic particle – the Big Bang creation myth is as fraught with miracles as any other.

Modern musical instruments have all evolved from the same materials: skin, bone, wood, gut, and voice.  So one wonders what ancient memory is stored in ice.  What fragility, loneliness, and incalculable beauty is stored in the solidified molecules of the very stuff upon which life depends?  I have distinct memories of trudging home from grade school at dusk, the snow knee-high.  Cold, dark, quiet.  There was a distinct sound as the snowflakes hit my face, my feet breaking the smooth surface of the snow; something ominous about the muffled sound of a car moving past; something very eerie about the half-finished snowman in the big corner lot.  Everything became so still.  But it was a haunted, pregnant stillness – a feeling that the trees, despite appearing quite lifeless, merely had their eyes closed.

Terje Isungset’s music evokes a time and a place at once so mysterious and so familiar. All the sounds are created upon instruments carved from ice.  The pieces are improvised and recorded in structures made of ice – igloos and glaciers.  Yet, despite the incredible “technology” involved in the construction of the music, what strikes the listener is the transcendence of music into a sonic experience of our earthbound mythology.   The cavernous resonance emanated by centuries of frozen history, the fragility of instruments whose very magic lies in the nature of transience, and the human voice- the ephemerality of which is so deeply embedded in breath – spiritus.

Isunget’s music does not tell us a myth, it involves us in the actual living of myth.  The ability to mythologize is not the ability to tell stories, it is the ability to create meaning from that which will forever remain a mystery – existence.  Yes, Isungset’s music is deeply beautiful, richly evocative, highly original; but allow it to work upon your spirit and you may find your self changed, not transformed but deepened.  You may recover something ancestral, something that puts you in touch with the natural world in all its mystery, delicacy, and inherent evanescence.  By the time you read this sentence, the present moment is gone.  The stuff of philosophy is wonder.  The stuff of music is soul.  Great art finds the place in between.


Listen to clips here:


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Seaworthy+Matt Rösner- Two Lakes

We live in a predominantly visual world.  Our sense of place is highly determined by what is seen.  Even our sense of Time, if one really thinks about it, is primarily arranged in consciousness by spatial elements – how long will it take me to get from here to there.  When we go abroad, we go out to see the sights. At a paradigmatic level, modern society has fallen into what A. N. Whitehead calls the fallacy of misplaced concreteness - mistaking the map for the territory, the formula for the phenomenon.  (Ask a physicist about gravity and they will most likely show you this: g_h=g_0left(frac{r_e}{r_e+h}right)^2.  Rarely, if ever, will they admit that they really don’t know what the hell gravity is, or begin waxing poetic and refer to it as Love or Allurement.) Representations of our world are visual representations: photographs and maps tell us what our world is, tell us our place in that world, even tell us a bit about our cosmology and world view.  For instance, do we live in a world surrounded by the numinous or a world that is floating in a vast empty space divided and fractured by politics?

Do we live in this world?

Or this one?

On the other hand… how often have we “taken a trip back home” and experienced a felt sense of security, of belonging, of place, not from the seen but the heard?  One hears the stillness of a humid summer: the singing of locusts, the lapping waves of the lake, the soft trickling of the creek, those particular bird songs that you didn’t realize you missed. One hears the hard fragility of winter: the soft crackling of iced tree limbs, the delicate drip of icicles in the afternoon sun, even that unmistakable silence of early morning snowfall.  Are these sensations not as integral to our sense of place as the landmarks? But how often do we appreciate and allow ourselves the opportunity to tune-in to the our primal world of sound. A world, perhaps, prior to the symbolic forms of language?

Seaworthy and Matt Rösner allow us this very opportunity.  ”Two Lakes” is a sound study of two coastal lake ecosystems at the lakes Meroo and Termeil.  What is perhaps most striking about this recording is the delicate interplay between the sounds of the environment and the electro-acoustic sounds of the musicians.  The relationship begs the question of the liminal space between the two.  Where does one end and the other begin?  The human urge to music making is ubiquitous and primal.  It seems to spring forth effortlessly from some deep well of experience; one that hearkens back to an aspect of our evolutionary roots where “vision” was merely the play of chiaroscuro – the dance of light and shadow – and our expression of being-ness flowed, unhindered by rational thought, back into the world through song, through music.

“Two Lakes” conveys our deep, abiding relationship to the world of sound; our attempts to commune with our landscape – a landscape that is no mere cartography of what is “out there”, but the landscape of relationship – one that has no reservations to define gravity as Love.

Listen to some samples here:


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Kemialliset Ystävät (untitled)

“I imagine that as contemporary music goes on changing in the way that I’m changing it what will be done is to more and more completely liberate sounds from abstract ideas about them and more and more exactly to let them be physically uniquely themselves. This means for me: knowing more and more not what I think a sound is but what it actually is in all of its acoustical details and then letting this sound exist, itself, changing in a changing sonorous environment.”

~John Cage, 1952

Kemialliset Ystävät, a Finnish music collective, has been quietly releasing one exploratory masterpiece after another since 1995.  Their name translates to Chemical Friends.  Apt, as their music evokes not only the ancient folklore of the dark Finnish forest, but also the kind of alchemical coniunctio we might feel emanating from the dank quarters of John Dee – the sounds oozing from the penumbral region between science and magic.

John Dee – unknown artist, 16th century

When we think of the concept of music, most of us tend to believe that it is the artist’s role to collect, organize, unify, and hence, make sense of sound (an idea which opens up a whole can of worms around philosophizing a musical ontology – too many worms for now…).  Increasingly in music of the late 20th century and the roiling creativity of the 21st, the listener finds him or herself in a far more active position.  As sounds from the environment are stirred into a steaming admixture of synthetic tone, acoustic instrumentation, haunted voices of the disembodied choir, and the blips, squeaks, and pops of the ubiquitous electronic landscape, we find ourselves immersed in a formless stew – dreamlike and translucent – from which we somehow extract meaning.

Raymond Llull- 16th century

Alchemy became known as a spagyric art, meaning to separate and join together. At its most dignified it was a spiritual quest for purifying the soul.  Kemialliset Ystävät challenge us to enfold all of our experience of the sonic world within our definition of music; they challenge us to mythologize and co-create a world of meaning from the seemingly disparate aspects of our sensory awareness.  We live in a time that exalts above all else rationality.  This music (and perhaps music in general) encourages us to re-engage with the mystical, all too human, capacity to unify. Kemialliset Ystävät is not going to give easy answers, but herein lies their ultimate generosity – their gift to you is your own creativity.

Listen to them at Fonal Records or their own website:



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Steve Tibbetts – Natural Causes

It would be easy to say that Tibbett’s new album, Natural Causes, is beautiful, sublime, or elegant.  It would be easy to address its austerity, restraint, or subtlety.  We might even come at it from the perspective of the good old music theorist who attempts to dissect each song into its modal qualities, its shifting rhythms, or the complexities of its harmonic structure.  Both the adjectival and the rational/theoretical approach somehow fall far short of conveying Tibbetts’ real achievement here: the transmission of spiritual immanence. We could certainly begin such a discussion by pointing to his previous work with Choying Drolma – Cho (1997) and Selwa (2004) – both of which floated as if carried by clouds.  But it seems shallow to write off the felt sense of timelessness as a product of the East.  If we were to sink into the imagistic we could just as easily find ourselves in the sanctuary of Augustin or Aquinas as in the temple of the Tibetan monk; we might feel the bite of Himalayan wind or the warmth of a Central American cove; we could be exploring the pattern of clouds through a tangle of redwood or gazing from an office window, high above the city streets, at (or in a more tender moment, through) the swarming mass of humanity – the hungry ghosts, each with their joys and sorrows. It is true – this music conjures the East but it is also distinctly Western.  Somehow, though, these labels, upon closer inspection, dissolve.  But the result is not some watered down “world music” merely appropriating the Sounds of another culture into a commodified phantasm – but a seamless blending of spiritual wisdom-gleaned with the natural spirituality of inherited place.  Tibbetts’ time in Tibet is palpable, but it is impossible not to feel the years of Minnesota winters crystallizing through his music.  It feels tacky to insert some kind of pugnacious plug of popular global village rhetoric here. Perhaps a subtler reference toward Teilhard de Chardin might be in order:

Teilhard was a Catholic philosopher  best known for his revolutionary revision of evolution.  Instead of the traditional phylogenic approach begun by Darwin and his ilk, Teilhard used Consciousness as his common thread… all the way down… to the molecular… It is all Consciousness.  He gifted us with a spiritual telos involving what he called the Noosphere – a sphere of thought arising naturally from the Biosphere (the sphere of Life).  Technocrats might refer to this phenomenon as a manifestation of the Internet; the Earth centric among us may claim that Gaia herself has reached a new stage of her own consciousness through human thought; a cosmologist might see this nexus of self-reflection as the Universe looking back at herself.  For Teilhard, though, it is Life moving into the purely spiritual. Music has the capacity to act as a bridge to the non-rational, pre-verbal depths of consciousness – a world prior to the imagistic land of dream; prior to light and shadow; a world close to the skin – that permeable membrane “separating” our inside from our outside.  Music also acts as a vehicle of transcendence to the diaphanous realms of spirit.  Tibbetts and his long-time percussionist Marc Anderson traverse the vertical trajectory of the spirit, but also walk lightly along the horizontal – the connections that make us all too human, the aesthetics of culture and geography, the ineffable world of Feeling. So, yes, Natural Causes is beautiful; it is elegant; there is a depth of restraint and subtlety.  But how do we begin to describe the complex relationship of transcendence and immanence?  Words fall short in our attempts to describe the “space between”.  Perhaps this is where we turn to music as an expression of our pre-linguistic experience, and expression of that elusive quality we call Compassion.

One song that was not included on the cd is a cover of Villanova Junction by Jimi Hendrix.  Here’s a taste:

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